Hungary's gentleman bandit

In a country rife with corruption, a chivalrous, whiskey-drinking criminal has captured the popular imagination.


Adam LeBor
August 17, 1999 12:10PM (UTC)

He's the folk hero whose exploits have captivated all of Hungary: a
Transylvanian-born ice hockey player turned bank robber who slugged back a shot
of whiskey before each of his 28 heists, and who, after finally being arrested, escaped last month from a high-security prison by tying together a string of bedsheets.

A team of Hollywood scriptwriters couldn't have done a better job putting this
story line together. This, however, is a real-life story of armed robberies and
dramatic escapes by a dashing robber who gave flowers to the female bank tellers
he robbed, then escaped by hailing a taxi and hurtling through the
back streets of Budapest, or by swimming across the Danube.

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Attila Ambrus, "the Whiskey Robber," is Hungary's latest folk-hero fugitive,
admired across the generations for his daring criminal exploits. Celebrated on
commemorative T-shirts and buttons, and the talk of the country's bars and cafes,
Ambrus -- who reportedly once even disguised himself as a policeman while robbing a
bank -- now has his own Hungarian
fan club
on the Internet, which offers a Whiskey Robber screensaver, news
archive and details of a look-alike contest. (Law-abiding citizens concerned that
crime is being glorified have set up a rival anti-whiskey site.)

Police checkpoints dot Budapest at night, and cars are stopped in a nationwide manhunt for the 32-year-old Ambrus, who has reportedly collected 142 million forints (about $590,000) from his robberies. Like any good criminal, Ambrus has gained a
reputation for high living; as Budapest gossip has it, a holiday with Ambrus
has become highly prized among his female friends.

Ambrus' lawyer, Gyorgy Magyar, announced that an unnamed American public
relations firm has offered a large (and so far undisclosed) sum to make a film about
Ambrus' exploits, and that his client has been inundated with offers from newspapers
and publishers to buy his life story. There is also some talk that the money made
could be used to compensate banks for their losses.

Magyar also announced that Ambrus will be at the center of an advertising campaign
for a new energy drink. Manufacturers have bought the rights to use Ambrus' face
for six months. Promotional T-shirts, buttons and souvenirs are already in production, and the drink will be produced by a Western European company together with a Hungarian partner.

Peter Nagy, general secretary of the Hungarian Advertising Association, told the
Hungarian newspaper Nepszava that while it is unethical for a criminal to appear
in advertisements, there is no law against it.

Ambrus' current whereabouts are unknown, although most Hungarians believe he has
left the country. But his exploits have caught the public's imagination, to the dismay of police officers and officials who are baffled that a serial lawbreaker has somehow morphed into the talk of the town, lauded for his derring-do.

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Few expect that there will be many takers for the police reward of 1 million
forints (about $4,150) for anyone helping to catch the Whiskey Robber. Ambrus was only caught after he went home to his apartment to fetch his dog before
fleeing Hungary -- a move that brought him even more public support in this nation of dog-lovers.

Moreover, the country's still powerful, chivalrous tradition of flower-giving -- "No one who likes flowers can be a bad man," goes one saying -- assures that among the Hungarian public, Ambrus is seen as the archetypal thief with a heart of gold.

Although Ambrus confessed to the robberies, he became depressed after learning
that he would also be charged with attempted murder and illegal use of a gun
during one of his robberies. Ambrus' lawyer said that the police had offered him
better accommodation in prison and the opportunity to write his autobiography in
return for confessing, but neither were granted.

Police officers say they are surprised and dismayed about the widespread national
support for Ambrus. "I thought that society was against crime and more
cooperative with the police," said Geza Jakab, deputy chief of Budapest police,
reported the English-language Budapest Sun newspaper. "Ambrus had more
possibilities than the average citizen. He could have chosen legal ways."

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But there is more at stake here than the fate of a bank robber. That Ambrus'
exploits have struck such a chord in the national psyche illuminates the
widespread popular resentment among Hungarians against officialdom and
disillusionment with post-Communist society. Ten years after the collapse of the
one-party state in 1989, there is still widespread institutionalized corruption,
and a lack of transparency in public administration and policy making.

While Marxist ideology has withered and died, pre-1989 networks based on nepotism
and personal connections are still important factors in the country's economy.
Just as in other post-Communist countries, an ostentatious class of nouveau riche
"entrepreneurs," many with shady or criminal connections, has flourished since
1989 to the dismay, disgust even, of many Hungarians.

Budapest is rife with corruption. There is a torrent of dirty money rushing
through the city. Some of the money is washed by international front companies
from the organized crime syndicates that have set up shop in the Hungarian
capital, but much is injected straight into the local consumer economy.

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It is common to see muscle-bound young men driving shiny new top-of-the-line
Mercedeses or BMWs, tearing up and down Budapest's Hapsburg-era boulevards with
salon-tanned trophy girlfriends at their sides, thick ropes of gold chains
clanking around their necks, chattering on minuscule mobile telephones. While
these privatization profiteers rake in the cash, most Hungarians struggle to get
by on a salary of less than $300 a month. The FBI has even set up a training
school in Budapest for police officers from across Eastern Europe to help combat
organized crime.

There is no shortage of examples of the moral rot permeating the Hungarian
economy. The national police have launched criminal proceedings, for instance, against Gabor Princz, the former president and CEO of Postabank, alleging that his abuses of power cost the state 158 billion forints (about $657 million) required to bail out the ailing bank.
Princz, who now lives and works in Vienna, denies the charges. But earlier this summer, a Hungarian weekly revealed that the bank gave cut-rate loans to VIPs and above-market interest on deposits to some politicians.

The widespread belief that most government officials are little more than
licensed criminals has boosted popular support for Ambrus. And there is also a deep distrust of the state, based on centuries of occupation by invading empires -- Tatars and Turks, Austrians and Germans. That sense of alienation
still thrives, even flourishes, under democracy. When politicians are seen as
licensed criminals, and the police are widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent,
everyone will cheer on a bank robber, says sociologist and professor Gyorgy Csepeli.

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"The Hungarian police have a credibility crisis. They are very active against
Gypsies or juvenile delinquents, but they are absolutely inept in dealing with the
big issues. There is tangible negative resentment in the Hungarian psyche toward
the state, most or all state officers and those in power."

Csepeli said he is not surprised by Ambrus' popularity: "It is normal in this
post-Socialist country to support those who are weaker and who take risks not to
pay taxes to the state. Ambrus is looked upon as a hero, as he took risks to
achieve what he wanted -- unlike those in positions of authority who steal and
cheat."

Ambrus' slick media and PR skills have also helped buy him sympathy. Young and
telegenic, he appears in sharp contrast to those ranged against him. "He was clever
psychologically. He was playful and he made a very good impression during his
television interviews, confessed everything frankly and looked very
professional," said Csepeli.

And perhaps he has not fled abroad at all. Earlier this month a masked bandit
robbed a bank in Budapest's 23rd district, taking more than 2 million forints
(about $8,300). Police found clothes at the riverbank, suggesting that the robber
undressed and swam away, just as Ambrus had done in the past. The masked bandit's
words when he ordered the safe to be opened?

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"You know who I am; I have nothing to lose."


Adam LeBor

Adam LeBor is a writer in Budapest, Hungary

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